Book Review

Highest Stakes by Emery Lee: A Guest Review by RedHeadedGirl


Title: Highest Stakes
Author: Emery Lee
Publication Info: Sourcebooks 2010
ISBN: 978-1402236426
Genre: Historical: European

Book Cover It was a Kindle freebie on Amazon.  It was published last year, so it’s not totally new, but it’s not old school, either. But I have words.

I’m finding a whole bunch of “not the usual Old West or Regency England or Victorian England setting” and this one is no different.  It starts around 1742 in England- there are several background historical that inform the action and the author does a really good job of tying these in to the reality and the motivation of the characters.

First is the house of Hanover and the succession crisis that brought the Germans to the throne of England.  (Thumbnail: Queen Anne didn’t have a living male heir, and Parliament passed the Act of Settlement of 1701 that settled the throne on the Electress of Hanover, who was a granddaughter of James I, which passed to her son George I by the time Anne died.)  France is squabbling with Austria (as you do) and the King sends the Army to “help” (but is really just trying to protect the Hanoverian holdings).

Consequently, the House of Stuart and the Jacobean uprising of 1715 and 1745 come in to play, too.  There are a number of people who quietly support Bonnie Prince Charles, or at least think the Stuarts are at least more English than the German House of Hanover.

So that’s the political context.  The social context surrounds horse racing.  (PONIES)  At this point, the English have developed a strong racing tradition (Sport of Kings, and all that).  If you’ve ever read King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (and WHY HAVE YOU NOT) that gives the background to one of the three foundation stallions and the basic gist behind some of the breeding issues.  (Horse-breeding issues.  There are people-breeding issues, too, but we will get to that.)  Also it’s really good.

So our hero is Robert Devington, who starts out his journey as a groom in Sir Garfield L’s stud.  Our heroine, Charlotte, is Sir Garfield’s niece and ward.  She comes into the family after her parents died (as parents in these stories are wont to do), and Sir Garfield is one of those annoying, absent, snotty guardians (as guardians in these stories are wont to do).  His head groom sees a kindred spirit in Charlotte, and teaches her how to ride- eventually letting her help train the babies.  She loves it, and is fearless, and has a good rapport with the horses, especially a broodmare named Amoret (as girls in these stories are wont to do).

Our story opens with a race- Sir Garfield’s son is supposed to ride, but is detained by a broken carriage.  As the jockeys for this race are only supposed to be gentlemen, Robert shouldn’t be able to ride, but he bluffs his way in by saying he’s engaged to Charlotte.  The race officials buy his story, he wins, Sir Garfield is happy to have made a SHITTON of money by selling the horse to the King of France, and Robert tries to convince Sir Garfield to make the fake engagement a real one (Charlotte is totally down with this plan).

Sir Garfield started off as a tradesman, and bought his way into a baronetcy, and in the way of nouveau riche, NOT willing to marry his ward off to a groom.  His social mobility trajectory is up, not down.  So Robert joins the Horse Guards to make his fortune (as stableboys in his position are wont to do).

He does fine, and ends up in possession of a warhorse he names Mars- the stallion is irredeemable, except Robert uses a bit of natural horsemanship (this was the point I knew the author really researched, and was a horse person, because no one but a horse person would give a crap about what this means) to convince Mars that life doesn’t blow when you have a job to do.  Robert makes it back from the wars a captain.  He’s hoping that being a captain would convince Sir Garfield that he’s an acceptable suitor for Charlotte.

It doesn’t work of course. An officer in the army still doesn’t meet Garfield’s definiton of upward mobility.  Instead, he’s looking for landed peers that need money for Charlotte and his daughter, Beatrix.

Robert has met his heterosexual life-partner in the wars- Phillip Drake, the second son of the Earl of Hastings.  The Earl of Hastings is dying, and his oldest son and heir, Edmund, is unmarried and not showing a great deal of interest in doing so.  Also he is a tool.  The old Earl tells his son and heir that hes a tool, and the terms of the will have been changed- if he doesn’t produce an heir within a year of the Earl’s death, Edmund will lose the title, and it’ll all pass to Phillip.

So Robert and Phillip head to the home of Sir Garfield, and Robert and Charlotte are thrilled to see each other other, and Phillip and Beatrix start off a kind of annoying round of Slap Slap Kiss (she decides she needs to get revenge on him for some imagined slight, and it ends with her going to his room in her nightie, and, well, fade to black).  Naturally, because she can’t get away with anything, she gets pregnant and blackmails daddy into letting her marry Phillip.

Sir Garfield has decided that Edmund will do for a husband for Charlotte, who decides to run away to Gretna Green with Robert.  Phillip agrees to cover for them, and a plot is hatched to keep everyone from knowing that the two crazy kids ran off.  The plot fails, Phillip is sent after them, which he reluctantly agrees to.  If he doesn’t bring Charlotte back, he doesn’t get to marry Beatrix.

So Charlotte and Robert have about 12 hours lead time to get 300 some odd miles, on horseback, from London to Gretna Green. (And finally, after years of reading romances, I finally looked up why Gretna Green was the go-to place for runaway marriages.  Answer (in case anyone is as dumb as I am): it’s right over the border to Scotland, and Scots law on marriage allowed a woman of 12 and a boy of 14 to marry without parental consent, rather than 21, which was the age in England.  So now you know.)

They make it only about halfway before Phillip catches up with them, and the shit really hits the fan.  Robert and Charlotte both think Phillip has totally betrayed them, Phillip is just trying to do his best, there’s a duel (of course), and Robert loses, badly.  But they’re both officers in the Army, and dueling is against the rules, especially in a time of war.  So off to the stockade they go.

Edmund has discovered that his bride-to-be has run off, which pisses him off no end, and he also discovers that his brother’s fiancée is pregnant.  So he declares Beatrix to be an acceptable substitute, and marries her.  Phillip is given Charlotte to marry (who hates this idea with flames on the side of her face), and Robert is transported to the Colonies (Charlotte is told he is hanged for his crime of dueling).

Now, the best description of story structure I’ve ever heard was Cleolinda on a Made of Fail podcast, quoting who she thinks may have Billy Wilder that, in Act One, you put your hero in a tree, Act Two, you set the tree on fire and in Act Three, you get them out of the tree.

Our heroes are in a lot of trees, and they are well and truly on fire.  This is where Lee kind of falls down.  The last third of the book is really rushed- you have a lot of stuff happening off-stage, and plot points I expected the play into the resolution are dismissed with barely a mention.  By the end, it really felt like she said, “uhhhhh, yeah, you’re all out of trees, enjoy your lives!”

It’s a romance, and you expect a HEA, and I don’t think it’s spoiling to say you get one ….kind of… but it’s contrived.  During the book club discussion of Unveiled, I said that I had no idea how Milan was going to resolve the conflict, and it was exciting.  In Highest Stakes, I had no idea how the conflict was going to be resolved, and it was kind of a mess.  I feel like the end was either a “oh crap, this is getting to be kind of long, I better end it!” or “oh crap!  My deadline is approaching, I better end it!” We get through 8 years and a lot of stuff in maybe 50 pages.

The main conflict could have been resolved if people actually listened to each other.  I know Robert is angry about all the shit that keeps landing on his head, and justifiably so, but still.  Even if he’d let Charlotte explain WHY she had to marry Phillip (that or turned out on the street with no money, no protection, no nothing), maybe a little bit of heartache could have been avoided.  But no.  Lee ups the ante by having no one listen to anything anyone else is saying.

I am pretty certain this is a first novel, and there’s a little bit of first-novel-itis that I feel very confident she can overcome.  A little bit more telling than showing, some awkward phrasing, and a fairly characture-ish villain (violent and gay- unfortunate implications, sadly).

But there’s a lot more that I really liked about this than I disliked.  First, Lee does her homework.  She set up the historical context really well, and the concern of the country over the lack of male heir of Queen Anne is reflected by Edmund’s desire to get a male heir.  I liked how she drew the parallels between the concerns, and the conflict between Hanovers and Stuarts is sort of reflected in the conflict between Phillip and Edmund and who gets to be the Earl of Hastings.

Also, she does a few of the best infodumps I’ve ever read.  When Charlotte is introduced to the horse world, the head groom at her uncle’s stud explains the differences on conformation and why that’s important in breeding and in what job a horse is given.  Cart horses have a certain build, race horses have another.  I know all of this, and I wasn’t bored by it, and I feel like someone who doesn’t know all this would follow it.  It’s an adult explaining to a child, so it isn’t overly technical, and the dialogue is realistic.  There’s a few other infodumps that explain the history of racing and the main stallions of the English turf and the theories of breeding race horses- again, well done.  She’s a horse person.  She can’t not be.

All in all, I did enjoy this book very much and really hope to see more from Lee. (ETA: According to Goodreads, she’s got a few more books coming down the pipe in the same era.  YAY!) The issues will, I expect and hope, resolve themselves with more writing, and I love seeing someone who can research and apply that research well.  (Seriously, her bibliography is pages long- all good stuff.  I love it when authors include their sources.  LOVE IT.)


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sarah W says:

    I love your reviews, RHG!

    I’m starting to doubt “lack of communication” as a viable plot device. 

    It’s one thing to want to keep one’s personal feelings private and safe (I love him, but I’m not blurting it out until I’m sure he won’t run like a thief) or disbelieve someone (She says she doesn’t love this other guy, but she looks at him all the time).  Those doubts work for me (up to a point) because relationships are about trust and trust needs to be established.

    But I’m just a little tired of Person A making illogical, insulting, and frankly childish assumptions about Person B, whom they supposedly love, and B refusing/neglecting to call bull$#!% as loud as they can before and after A stalks off or demands satisfaction from Person C in a duel.  I know that leaves the secondary characters with less to do, but c’mon . .  .

    I think Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie was the last time this really worked for me, and at least person B tried before telling A to stick it.

  2. 2
    Sandy D. says:

    You know, I’ve never heard an infodump described so positively. That alone makes me want to read this one.

    And if I didn’t love your reviews already, your WHY HAVE YOU NOT (read) “King of the Wind” would certainly make me do so. If you’d ever care to write a review of Sham’s story for “The Newbery Project”, let me know. It’s sadly underrepresented in the reviews we’ve got there (people get to pick which Newbery award winning books they want to review, and hardly anyone’s picked “King of the Wind”, which I do not understand).

  3. 3
    Danielle (no not that one, the other one) says:

    (Another Marguerite Henry fan here, in case you couldn’t guess—Misty of Chincoteague was always my fave.)

    I’ve been looking for the grown-up equivalent of all the Pullein-Thompson pony books I used to devour—the Jilly Cooper-style equestrian bonkbusters don’t do it for me—and this sounds like it might be it.

  4. 4

    This one sounds good … and thankfully there’s a paperback for those of us who have something other than a kindle.

    Very nice review – thank yous!

  5. 5
    Deadline Hell says:

    the Jilly Cooper-style equestrian bonkbusters

    *snorts tea on keyboard*

  6. 6
    Emery Lee says:

    What a delightful shock to discover THE HIGHEST STAKES reviewed on your blog today! I really appreciate the added historical insights the reviewer provided here, and the attention to the various parallels I tried to draw between the politics, society and horseracing of the times.
    I am also very excited to share that my follow up to this novel, FORTUNE’S SON (a spin off set in the Georgian gambling world) will be released November 1. A sneak peak is available on my web site at
    Lastly, my heartfelt thanks to the smart bitches for featuring my novel on today’s blog.
    Warmest regards,
    Emery Lee

  7. 7

    Infodumps are a necessary evil- the trick is finding a way to have it actually relevant- especially in conversation, and make it happen naturally.  The awkward, “As you know, this is all the crap that has happened to us thus far” or “So, tell me the whole plan again?” stuff you see said by people who, by all rights and logic SHOULD already know this crap does no one any favors.  It was refreshing to see infodumps that were in character and told us more about the characters involved. 

    I’d be happy to write a review of King of the Wind.  We’re getting in crunch time at school, so I’m sure I’ll need many somethings to procrastinate with.  :D

    @Danielle: Saran Gruen (Of Water for Elephants fame) did two- Flying Changes and Riding Lessons which weren’t… bad.  Anne McCaffrey wrote The Lady, which is good on the horse stuff, problematic on a few other levels (but didn’t stop me from reading my first copy to absolute death and needed to buy another one).  If anyone has any other suggestions for grown-up horse-y books, PLEASE share!

  8. 8
    LizC says:

    I am impressed you made it through this book. Got it as a Kindle freebie as well and I made it halfway through before I gave up. I got really annoyed with all of the characters and when I read the last chapter and realized (SPOILER) that Charlotte remained married to Philip for EIGHT YEARS and magically was still a virgin, well, if I’d had the physical book I would’ve thrown it against the wall.

    I hate, hate, hate married/widowed virgin stories. The reason for it is almost always stupid and so obviously contrived because the heroine has to be “pure” for the love of her life. Gross.

  9. 9
    Ann Stephens says:

    Congrats to Emery Lee—I’ve seen this book & it looked interesting!

    And YES please oh please oh please a review of KING OF THE WIND would be wonderful! Loved it, loved Misty, and loved her book about different horse breeds which I cannot remember the name of just this second.

  10. 10

    @LizC:  She wasn’t a virgin- if I remember correctly (and I think I do) she did have sex with Robert before his trial (and before he knew about the marriage to Phillip).

    Now, no, she didn’t have sex with Phillip, but that was the agreement she and Phillip made.  Phillip could have had the marriage annulled at any time, but he didn’t, and there wasn’t any great cosmic to-do to keep him from trying to fuck her.  She didn’t want to, he wouldn’t force her (and after the last several books I’ve read, that was REALLY refreshing.  How sad is that?) so they agreed. 

    I mean, it is sad that Charlotte missed out on exploring her sexuality more, but I didn’t find the plot device to be over-wrought.  Just sad.

  11. 11
    AgTigress says:

    As always from Redheadedgirl, a very informative and readable review.  I like the sound of the book:  interesting period of history, and horses as well!  Count me in with those who want books about horses, and reviews thereof!

    On the ‘infodump’ issue, of course I agree that writers should avoid the kind of stilted conversations between characters that attempt to fill in background for the reader(*), but that isn’t what I thought ‘infodump’ was:  I thought it meant giving a lot of specialist,  technical detail about a subject which may not interest all readers.  If it is accurate and well-written, I am always in favour of it, because I like to be informed as well as entertained when I read fiction.  If the subject bores me (e.g. fishing, gambling, cars, how guns work), I just skim, without feeling in the least bit aggrieved.  If it interests me (history, art, animals, crafts etc. etc.) I lap it up.  Jenny Crusie, the avowed great enemy of infodump, had a lot of good, and accurate, exposition about ceramic tableware designs in her Fast Women, and it undoubtedly added to the book as a whole. 

    (*) One of the reasons that writers often try to fill in necessary background information by putting it into the mouths of the characters as dialogue, and sometimes make a total hash of it, is that they are now terrified of speaking to the reader with their own voices.  The current fashion of trying to pretend that there is no author there at all, that she should be invisible and inaudible, and that the reader should somehow engage directly with the characters without her mediation, is maddening, and in my view, quite unnecessary.  It takes away what to me are some of the great pleasures of fiction, such as vivid evocations of place and landscape, descriptive writing that helps the reader become attuned to the events and characters in the story.  The storyteller is the medium through whom we experience the stories, and to downplay her role flies in the face of tradition.  It is just wrong.

    I think the whole infodump phobia needs to be revisited, redefined, and sorted out.  If I wanted to read stories without the author’s voice ‘intruding’, in which plot and character development is all expressed in action and dialogue rather than explanation, description and thought, I’d be reading scripts and screenplays, not novels.

  12. 12
    Karenmc says:

    I picked this up on Kindle when it was free. Glad to read such a positive review. Horsies and the Georgian era = great change of pace (been reading too much same old-same old lately).

  13. 13
    Dayle says:

    As someone who eloped properly in Gretna Green, may I say that your history is a bit off?

    In England, the laws had changed so that marriages had to be recognized by the church, whereas in Scotland, all you had to do was stand up in front of witnesses and say you wanted to be married. Also, the age of consent in England was 21 but 16 (not 12 or 14) in Scotland.

    Gretna was the first village over the border into Scotland, so it was the easiest place to get to.  :-)

  14. 14
    AgTigress says:

    Also, the age of consent in England was 21 but 16 (not 12 or 14) in Scotland.

    The ‘age of consent’ is usually taken to mean the minimum age at which it is legal for people to have sexual intercourse.  I don’t know what that was in either England or Scotland in the 18th century, but it is certainly 16 at present in both countries (not that most teenagers take any notice).  But the age of majority was 21, as it still was when I was a young woman, and the parties therefore required parental consent to marry between the ages of 16 and 21.

  15. 15

    @Dayle:  I went to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia: 

    “Gretna’s famous “runaway marriages” began in 1753 when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was passed in England; it stated that if both parties to a marriage were not at least 21 years old, then parents had to consent to the marriage. This Act did not apply in Scotland, where it was possible for boys to marry at 14 and girls at 12 years old with or without parental consent (see Marriage in Scotland). Many elopers fled England, and the first Scottish village they encountered was Gretna Green.”

  16. 16
    kkw says:

    Awesome review, as always.  And once again AgTigress says what I’m thinking far better than I could:

    The current fashion of trying to pretend that there is no author there at all, that she should be invisible and inaudible, and that the reader should somehow engage directly with the characters without her mediation, is maddening,

    I blame Henry James.
    Side note on ponies/research, I recently read a romance novel in which the hero is breeding horses.  He’s delighted with his new acquisition of a gelding, which goes on to sire a very promising foal.  And this was historical romance, not paranormal.  Idiocy on the part of the writer, sure, but where’s the editor?

  17. 17
    AgTigress says:

    He’s delighted with his new acquisition of a gelding, which goes on to sire a very promising foal.

    That absolutely takes my breath away, and it beats my example of fur-less newborn kittens hollow! 
    Never mind an editor:  all you need is a dictionary (‘gelding: a castrated male animal, especially a horse’).  But maybe the author doesn’t know what ‘castrated’ means?

  18. 18
    Jrant says:

    This is awesome. The book sounds fabulous. It’s like a sundae made of my favorite things: ponies, and history, and ENGLISH history, and ponies and romance and PONIES. I love reading horse stories written by people who know what they’re talking about. (Also, it’s nice to hear about non-western horse stories. My barrel-racing grandmother would disown me for such a comment, but I just can’t relate!) I can’t wait to read it.

    And ALSO, thank you for reviewing a new/independent author. I WANT put my dollars and spare time towards independent authors and writers, rather than whatever top sellers the grocery store happens to be carrying. But it’s a big, big indie world out there, and I really appreciate educated opinions from People Who Know. Anyway, this review totally made my day. Hooray for ponies.

  19. 19
    Isabel C. says:

    @kkw: Vet with a drinking problem, maybe?

    Or, like, the horse equivalent of Richie from IT?

    Either way: snerrrk. Also having flashbacks to the gelding scene in My Friend Flicka , which I totally read before I had any idea what was going on or why the hero was so freaked about it. What the hell were they *doing* to those horses anyway?

    And then, five years later, on the re-read: Ohhh. Yowza.

  20. 20
    Jrant says:

    @redheadedgirl: Have you read anything by Dick Francis? He does murder mysteries, not romance, but most of them take place within the context of the professional steeple chase community in England. I believe Francis is an ex-jockey, so He Knows of Where He Speaks.

    Also, and this is a movie, rather than a book, suggestion, but I HIGHLY recommend The Man From Snowy River. Takes place in turn of the century Australian outback. It has horses, and drama and a really beautiful romance. This is my favorite pony movie, because it’s all about horses, yet it never turns them into personified Disney characters. And there is some AMAZING riding in it.

  21. 21
    geekgirl says:

    @ kkw

    which goes on to sire a very promising foal

    LOL! So either, even horses have The Magic Wang tm, or that mare was getting around.

  22. 22
    Lil' Deviant says:

    Also, and this is a movie, rather than a book, suggestion, but I HIGHLY recommend The Man From Snowy River.

    @ Jrant
    Loved that movie.  I second it!

  23. 23
    Emery Lee says:

    @Jrant and Lil Deviant-
    Hope you don’t mind my chiming in.
    I’m glad you mentioned TMfSR- One of amy all time favorite movies! Jim Craig and Jessica Harrison were very much the inspiration for my own Robert Devington and Charlotte Wallace. I also got the idea for the scene at Horse Guard training grounds (ch 4) from the opening scene of RETURN TO SNOWY RIVER. (A decent movie, if not as good as the first!  It was sorely lacking for Kirk Douglas’ absence.)

  24. 24
    Dayle says:

    @AgTigress, you’re correct. Age of majority. I was pretty sleepy this morning!

    @redheadedgirl, yup, that’s Wikipedia for you. Best served with lots of salt!

  25. 25

    @Emery:  I didn’t even see your comment earlier!  I’m glad you liked it, and I will totally be on the lookout for Fortune’s Son.

  26. 26
    Donna says:

    Now I’m having a Tom Burlinson moment… Ahhh, Tom Burlingson….

  27. 27
  28. 28
    Emery Lee says:

    @redheaded girl-
    Thanks RHG!
    It’s Philip’s and Sukeys’ story. I had to tell it as they almost stole the show in the first book! I LOVED their characters although I put poor Philip completely through the ringer in this one! As for the storyline- it’s much closer to a traditional HR, as the plot centers almost exclusively around them – but ALL of the supporting characters are real people from that time period. I also used as many real places as I could. Much research went into it and I hope it will be well received.

  29. 29
    P. Kirby says:

    Sigh.  Marguerite Henry’s awesome books, illustrated by Sam Savitt.  I learned how to draw by copying Savitt’s drawings.  To this day, I can still see his influence on my art, especially, of course, my horses.

  30. 30
    Susan/DC says:

    Question:  could the earl, dying or not, really pick which of his sons would be his heir?  He could leave any unentailed property as he wished, but could he leave the title to anyone other than the oldest son?  I thought there was little or no choice in this.

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